Layleen Polanco’s Treatment By Prison Guards Shows How Trans Women Are Killed By An Indifferent System

Brianna Provenzano

An estimated 15,000 protesters turned out to march down Brooklyn’s Eastern Parkway in solidarity with Black transgender lives on Sunday, more than three weeks into the racial uprising sparked by the death of George Floyd. Dressed all in white, the group advanced like a tide.  A collaboration between The Okra Project, which provides meals to black trans people, and the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, the rally endeavored to call attention to the disproportionated levels of violence and discrimination that black trans individuals face.

Among the speakers who addressed the massive crowd was Melania Brown — the sister of Layleen Polanco, a Black trans woman who died of a seizure in New York City’s Rikers Island in 2019 after corrections officers failed to check in on her at the required 15-minute intervals.

“My sister is not here to fight for herself, but I’m here,” Brown said. “We’re here, and they’ve got to make room for us. And if they don’t, we’re taking it.”

The renewed energy around Polanco’s case comes just days after the emergence of new video footage which shows guards in the restrictive housing unit where she was being held exhibiting negligent behavior after she suffered an epileptic seizure in their custody.

The footage in question, first obtained and released by NBC News, shows that corrections officers checked in on Polanco at 1:42 p.m, and then again at 2:27 p.m. — 47 minutes later, which is not in accordance with DOC policy, stating that suicide prevention agents are supposed to check in on inmates in Punitive Segregation housing every fifteen minutes. The disturbing footage also appears to show guards laughing outside of Polanco’s cell as they realize that she requires medical attention while exhibiting no sense of urgency.

The outcry over the guards’ behavior in the moments before Polanco’s death comes after news about the ruling over her death just last week. A six-month-long investigation into Polanco’s death by the city’s Department of Corrections and Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark concluded with no criminal charges filed, according to reports filed in the first week of June.

“We have concluded that we would be unable to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that any individual committed any crime associated with Ms. Polanco’s demise,” Clark said. Decisions about potential administrative action against the corrections officers involved are still pending.

However, the new footage may change the case. David Shanies, a lawyer representing Polanco’s family in a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city and Department of Correction, said it was “horrifying for the family to see this footage,” which he called “the last piece of the puzzle,” in the case.

“It’s the last bit of indifference to her life that we saw and recklessness to a person who obviously needed help,” Shanies said.

“[The family was] completely unprepared for what they saw,” Shanies added. “They all broke into hysterical crying, understandably. And to this day, Layleen’s mother is haunted by the images of the guard laughing at her daughter.”

While the lawsuit is ongoing, Polanco’s death has spurred some groups — including the LGBTQ- focused New York City Anti-Violence project — to call for permanent reforms in New York City’s jail system, including an end to cash bail and solitary confinement practices and for the correction officers involved to be fired.

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